Sadly, there is scant, little out there that establishes industry standards for interior designers and their fees, which vary widely across the U.S. That said, I often recommend that clients go to Salary.com or PayScale.com and research what a lead designer in a large interior or architectural firm would earn in their region. You can also check out web sites that offer listings for interior designer services in your area like Thumbtack.com or Houzz.com.
Interior designers provide a wide range of services and you should be clear about what your project requires and what you’d like to spend (do your homework here and be realistic). Ask the designer questions about their background and how they break their fees out…and what you get for that. The designer should be asking you questions too! Remember, you’re interviewing each other; and your project may not fit in with a particular designer’s style or minimum threshold. If this is the case, ask the designer for a referral to someone else. And be sure to ask your friends and colleagues if they’ve worked with someone they liked as well.
Generally, designers charge in one, or a combination, of the following ways:
The Hourly Fee: exactly what it sounds like. You are charged for all the time the designer and /or his/her staff expend on your project, regardless of the task. Most firms bill in 15 minute increments, so it’s best to have several thoughts to share before you communicate. An optional trade-off here may be that while the hourly amount may be higher than you might expect, you are likely to be free of mark-ups on materials and items of merchandise. Of course your arrangement could also be based on a lesser fee per hour along with a mark-up on the items you select. Both combinations typically run from 1/3 to 40% of over-all costs.
The Flat Fee: this is a flat amount that covers the cost of creating a customized design especially for you. $3,000.00 – $5000.00 per room is not a-typical in the Northeast, and flat fees for entire projects can run into many thousands of dollars based on the scope of the project. Often you are allowed to make a specified number of changes, at no additional charge, to bring the project more in line with either your taste or your wallet. Once you approve the final design, furniture and materials are ordered –as a separate service- either at an hourly charge for all time expended, or, on a mark-up system generally between 25-35%.
The Mark-Up: a percentage charge of each wholesale item you buy through your interior designer that covers a portion of the time it takes to order, process and arrange for the delivery of your items, often 25-35%. In some rare cases, designers have been known to charge a 50-100% mark-up but no hourly or flat fees for the design.
The Monthly Charge: a flat, monthly fee that covers all time expended by the designer in a 30-day period, whether you use the service or not. The amount can be based on the average number of hours a seasoned designer knows a project will/can take, or on what the designer projects her/his income over the course of a year should be for the type of project you present. This works wonderfully well on large, multi-year projects (ground-up construction and decoration) but can also work for mid-size projects where it functions like flat billing from the phone or electric company.
Sliding Scale Charges: different charges for different services, i.e. drafting, design, shopping, follow-up etc. Be sure you understand what you are agreeing to, and more importantly, that you trust your designer as this can become complicated and unwieldy. In my experience, and I’ve changed my opinion over time, what was intended to add clarity for the client about who was doing what job (Sr. Designer/Jr. Designer), for how long and at what price, turns out to be an accounting nightmare for my office and a matter of opinion on the part of the client. Therefore, I now invoice based on an average of all of these charges for all of the time we expend, with the exception of drawings, which are invoiced directly by the draftsperson.